Book Review: The Present Age – Søren Kierkegaard

“There is no more action or decision in our day than there is perilous delight in swimming in shallow waters.”

In “The Present Age”, Søren Kierkegaard discusses the philosophical implications of a society dominated by mass media, foreseeing the rise of twenty-four hour news and social media, it examines the philosophical implications of a culture of endless, inconsequential commentary and debate – a society eerily similar to our own.

The Age of Revolution together with The Present Age, make up his book Two Ages: A Literary Review, which he published in 1846.

For Kierkegaard, the present age is essentially a sensible age, devoid of passion. He contrasts this with the “revolutionary age”:

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”

And:

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose”

The work was published shortly after “The Corsair Affair” in which the satirical magazine made Kierkegaard the target of public ridicule, forcing him into deeper isolation – which only increased his determination to strike back.

He attacks the conformity and assimilation of individuals who become immersed in an indifferent and abstract public. They are incapable of anything but “crowd actions” which are not true actions at all.

Kierkegaard says that we can only become individuals by action, he was concerned with inwardness, the quality of our individuality. He feared that in modern consumer society the individual was being absorbed into the crowd and the spiritual life of the individual was being stifled by it.

The individual loses himself in the finite, he mindlessly follows others and goes around the demands of culture and social expectations. He loses his individuality, becoming an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.

The age of great and good actions is past, the present age is the age of anticipation when even recognition is received in advance.   

Ice Skater Analogy

Kierkegaard gives a splendid comparison of the two ages through the ice skater analogy.

If a jewel which everyone desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while closer in, the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize.

But in an age, without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worthwhile to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daring and enthusiasm into a feat of skill.  The crowds would go out to watch from a safe place, as the accomplished skater moves almost to the very edge, and then swiftly turns back. Intelligence, prudence and skill transforms the real task into an unreal trick and reality into a play.

“A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless, transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics.”

Reflective tension

The present age is characterised by idle-chatter and gossip. People have plenty to talk about, but on trivial matters which amount to nothing. They are afraid of the silence which reveals the emptiness of talkativeness.

It is an age of ambiguity. The whole age becomes a sort of committee, observing and deliberately working out problems.

For example, a father no longer curses his son in anger, using all his parental authority, nor does a son defy his father, a conflict which might end in forgiveness. It has become a problem in which the two partners observe each other as in a game, instead of having any relation to each other, and they note down each other’s remarks instead of showing a firm devotion.

This is known as reflective tension, while in a passionate age the unifying principle was enthusiasm – the present age is characterised by envy, preventing the individual to make a decision passionately.

In the present age, an individual has to break loose from the bonds of his own reflection, but even then he is not free. Instead he finds himself in the vast prison formed by the reflection of those around him.

People do not realise that they are imprisoned as the imprisonment is not external, but rather internal. Therefore, reflection adds to our affliction.

Ressentiment

Just as the air in a sealed room becomes unbearable, so does the imprisonment of reflection which gives way to envy, which in turn takes the form of ressentiment, if it is not ventilated by action of any kind.

Ressentiment is also a term used by Nietzsche, notably in his Genealogy of Morals, although they differ in meaning. For Kierkegaard, it means that one blames one’s own failures to another person. Individuals who do not conform to the masses are made scapegoats and objects of ridicule by the masses, in order to maintain the status quo and to instil into the masses their own sense of superiority.

Throughout history, man has always liked to joke enviously about his superiors. That is fine so long as after having laughed at the great they can once more look upon them with admiration.

In Greece, for example, the form ressentiment took was ostracism. The outstanding individual was exiled in order for the masses to preserve their social position, it was thus considered a mark of distinction. The man who votes for the exile of the outstanding individual does not deny his eminence but rather admits something about himself.

On the other side, the more reflection gets the upper hand and thus makes people indolent, the more dangerous ressentiment becomes. It now wants to drag down the individual so that he ceases to be distinguished.

Levelling

This takes the form of what Kierkegaard calls levelling. While a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, a reflective and passionless age hinders and stifles all action; it levels.

Antiquity tended towards leadership represented by the great individual, the present age, however, tends towards equality. In other words, it tries to put everything at the same level.

Levelling is an anonymous social process without leaders in which the uniqueness of the individual becomes non-existent by assigning equal values to all aspects of human endeavours, thus missing all the subtle complexities of human identity.

It is the victory of abstraction over the individual, one essentially embodies the crowd. It is the destruction of the individual.

The Public

Levelling is supported by “the public”, which Kierkegaard calls a “monstrous nothing”. It consists of unreal individuals who are never united in an actual situation and yet are held together as a whole, there is no personal contact.

“In order that everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first of all necessary to procure a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage – and that phantom is the public. It is only in an age which is without passion, yet reflective, that such a phantom can develop itself with the help of the Press which itself becomes an abstraction.”

The Press satisfies the desire of seeking trivial diversion, without making one responsible for anything.

Kierkegaard also comments on the future of education:

“There are handbooks for everything, and very soon education, all the world over, will consist in learning a greater or lesser number of comments by heart, and people will excel according to their capacity for singling out the various factors like a printer singling out the letters, but completely ignorant of the meaning of anything.”

The Leap

Reflection, however, is not evil – since it leads one to the only way out –  man’s salvation lies in the reality of religion of each individual. One has to work through it and emerge from it, in order that one’s actions should be more intensive.

Kierkegaard believes that God is a personal matter, he wanted to become “a Christian in Christendom”, a true Christian in a society full of falsely religious people.

A person who is religious would not be able to guide another as that would not only make him unfaithful to God in trying to use authority, but most importantly because he did not obey God and teach men to love one another and help them to make the leap themselves, for God’s love is not a second-hand gift. This is akin to the knight of faith, which Kierkegaard talks about in Fear and Trembling.

Religion is to follow oneself and be content with oneself – by leaping into the depths, one learns to help oneself and to love others as much as oneself, becoming an individual. Reflection is concerned with temporal matters, it does not have a place in the eternal view of life. As Kierkegaard says:

“Faith is immediacy after reflection”

The goal of life is not to understand the highest, but to act on it, commitment brings you back into the forward movement of life.


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The Present Age | Søren Kierkegaard

The Present Age was published in 1846 by Søren Kierkegaard. He discusses the philosophical implications of a society dominated by mass media, foreseeing the rise of twenty-four hour news and social media, it examines the philosophical implications of a culture of endless, inconsequential commentary and debate – a society eerily similar to our own.


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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

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